Last Sunday we heard of Our Lord’s strategies for resolving conflict between his followers. The emphasis throughout is to give the offending person every opportunity to admit wrongdoing and to repair the relationship with the injured party; and, as a last resort, if this did not happen, to remove that person from the community.
Today we hear St Peter asking Jesus ‘Well, how long must I go on forgiving someone who is repeatedly offending me?’ Surely, he says, there must be a limit to the number of times I have to forgive a serial offender’? He then suggests the limit might be set at seven times. Here Peter thinks he’s been generous because this number was far in excess of the traditional limits to forgiveness set by the Jewish rabbis of the time.
Jesus replies to Peter by saying: no, you must not set a limit. However, if you want a number, Peter, I’ll give you one: multiply your seven times by 70 – so 490 times, that’s how far you must be willing to go to forgive a repeat offender.
Our Lord’s point is that as God does not set a limit on forgiving us so we must not set a limit to forgiving each other.
To illustrate the point, Jesus uses an image acceptable in his day but not so in ours. He tells a story about a slave owner dealing with a slave who owes him an astronomical sum of money, the equivalent of billions of pounds today. The slave has no way of repaying it but after he begs for mercy, the owner cancels the debt. However, this liberated slave then meets a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of a few pounds but fails to show him the same leniency or mercy he had previously experienced himself.
In this story the slave owner who cancels the huge debt of the slave represents God the Father. Just as he has forgiven us for our many faults/trespasses/debts, we in turn, Jesus says, must extend the same mercy to those who have wronged us. God does not set a limit to his patience and forgiveness of us so we must be equally generous with others and not set a limit to forgiving them.
This teaching is summed up in the Lord’s Prayer when we say to God the Father: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ That little word AS carries so much weight … ! This is a very clear and unambiguous teaching from Jesus – if we want God to deal mercifully with us, we have to show repeated mercy to others.
But how on earth do we live up to such a responsibility? If I am bearing huge hurt in my heart at the moment, it’s far from easy to do as Jesus asks. For some of us, time may be the great healer and we gradually are able to let go of resentment and bitterness for great harm done to us. But, clearly, there are some things which time does not heal, which we just cannot get over and we have to live with the hurt and bear the scars for the rest of our lives.
Nevertheless, as many of us know only too well, when we don’t, won’t or can’t let go of anger against another who has hurt or let us down, the anger we bear damages us more than the one who hurt us. That anger is a monkey or a demon we drag around on our back and it robs us of making the most of the gifts, opportunities and life that we have been given. That’s the tragedy of anger – the person it affects most is the one carrying it and not the one who caused it. And it means that as long as I bear it my life is being wasted.
So in his wisdom Jesus says to us: as God lets go of your sins, you let go of those who have sinned against you. Anger holds you back. Break free of it. Let it go and move on … to a better life.
Holy Name, Jesmond
13 September 2020